Israelis mourn losses in Mumbai attacks

Funeral of Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, brings vows to fight back – with 'light and goodness.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

  • close
    Tribute: In Kfar Chabad, Israel, mourners prayed during the funeral Tuesday of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, who died in the Mumbai attacks.
    View Caption

Thousands of Israeli mourners on Tuesday thronged the streets of this town, a place where neither Rabbi Gavriel nor Rivka Holtzberg – the young religious couple killed last week in the terror attacks in Mumbai (Bombay) – actually lived.

But this town, its name, and the stately brick brownstone building that the eulogies took place in front of – an exact replica of the building at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, N.Y., where their leader and rabbi once lived – is a symbol and spiritual home of the Chabad movement, which sends out emissaries to serve communities in some of the most far-flung corners of the world.

Couples like the Holtzbergs offer services to Jewish travelers, among them thousands of young Israelis. But in contrast to the Orthodox couple, the majority of Israelis who go to India each year are either secular or far less religious.

Recommended: 5 countries where the death penalty is legal but rare

After finishing their mandatory army service they go looking for an escape – or for a spiritual self-discovery – and that often leads them to the door of the nearest Chabad.

"Amid all of the chaos there, it was an island of sanity," says Moshe Menachemov, a businessman who had visited the house run by the Holtzbergs while he was visiting India.

"How many young people have I meet who went to India to find themselves, to discover the world, and what did they find? Mom and Dad. Who was that? That was Gabi and Rivka," cried Rivka's uncle, Rabbi Yitzchok Dovid Grossman, as he eulogized the couple at a funeral attended by several thousand.

"You hosted your visitors with hospitality just like our forefather, Abraham," Mr. Grossman said, sobbing. "You built a hotel there. Not for yourselves, for your own benefit, but so that every Jew and every human being could come by and have a warm house to go to," he said. Meals and lodging were free. The only goal, he said, was to bring people closer to God.

The night before, he spoke with the Monitor in Migdal HaEmek, in northern Israel, where he had once employed his niece and her husband in his 6,000-student boarding school. From this, and from their regular phone conversations since they moved to India to open a Chabad House, he knew the young couple well. He described people who had essentially given up their private lives in order to serve others who came through Mumbai looking for a meal or a place to stay.

From her teenage years, he recalled, his niece would walk around the hospital wards in Afula, her nearby hometown, on Friday afternoons and call her uncle with a report of how many people with ill loved ones needed hot meals for the Sabbath. And then, before sundown, they'd deliver.

"Day and night, all they did was to work to give food and drink to other people," he explained. Chabad is essentially an outreach organization that encourages assimilated Jews to return to their religion, but doesn't believe in proselytizing.

For Israelis in general, one of the most popular tourism destinations is India. Exotic and Eastern, diverse and deep, India has long been a place where the welcome mat was always out. Israelis consider it relatively safe and affordable, in contrast to the myriad countries they can't travel to, including the many Muslim countries that don't have relations with Israel.

The comfort Israelis feel in India has underpinnings in the strategic relationship that has developed between the two countries – one that is deeply resented by Islamic hard-liners in neighboring Pakistan. Tensions between Islamabad and New Delhi have soared since the multitarget attack last week, in which at least 188 people died. On Tuesday, India said that Pakistan should hand over 20 wanted militants as a gesture of its seriousness in fighting terrorism.

At the funeral service, Rabbi Naftali Lipsker, who oversees the Chabad youth movement in Israel, said the terror attack was a divine test for the faithful.

"We swear revenge. A revenge of light. A great offensive army of holiness and love. This is our way," he said. The rabbis promised to name the Mumbai center for the slain couple, and called on Israel's government to provide security for the Chabad centers as if they were embassies.

Israeli President Shimon Peres – the only politician to speak at the funeral – said that the Mumbai attacks have divided the world into two camps, and called on the international community to unite to condemn terrorism and its sponsors. He also linked Iran to the attacks for "calling for the destruction of Israel."

"In every place where terrorism resides, where they give it money, where they give it a passport … if the world doesn't say, 'enough,' we are in danger," he said.

"We will answer the terrorists," said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, another Chabad rabbi who spoke at the funeral. "But we will not fight them with AK-47s, grenades, and tanks. A little candle can light up a whole dark room. Such brutal actions can only be fought by torches, torches of light and goodness."

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...